Documentary films may have their own Oscar category, but they rarely appear in mainstream theaters. Still, ”Super Size Me” — which earned Morgan Spurlock the nod for best documentary director at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival — is coming soon to a theater near you. What makes ”Super Size Me” exceptional? Simple. It’s not a documentary at all.
The main attraction of ”Super Size Me” is watching Spurlock put on weight while he gorges on nothing but McDonald’s food for a month. Spurlock calls it ”an honest film about what can happen when you continue to have a fast-food diet.” But eating 90 meals in a row at the same restaurant is no more realistic than so-called reality shows like ”Average Joe.” Take away the anti-fast food elitism, and ”Super Size Me” looks like a cross between ”Fear Factor” and ”My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”
MTV viewers may remember Spurlock’s short-lived show ”I Bet You Will,” whose motto was ”stupidity pays.” With cameras rolling, Spurlock paid a man to gulp down an entire 24-ounce jar of mayonnaise. He got a woman to shave her head, combine the hair with butter to form a giant hairball, and then eat it. Internet voyeurs could also see one guy chew on a piece of dog feces for Spurlock’s ready cash. Not surprisingly, the show featured an ”Official Puke Bucket.”
Fast-forward to 2004. The mainstream media are lining up to shake hands with Spurlock, who now presents himself as a serious and socially concerned documentary filmmaker. Spurlock recently pontificated that ”If there’s one thing we could accomplish, it is that we make people think about what they put in their mouth.” This from a guy who once paid people to eat dog droppings.
”Super Size Me” is little more than an extended episode of ”I Bet You Will,” in which Spurlock dares himself to eat poorly, yells ”action,” and laughs all the way to the bank. However, it does successfully demonstrate the truth of his own words from the days of ”I Bet You Will”: ”People will do anything — and I mean anything — for money.”
Of course, Spurlock is hardly the only ambitious prankster who sees dollar signs where the rest of us see dinner. Trial lawyers have spent the last few years greedily eyeing Big Food. Perhaps not coincidently, Spurlock says his burger bonanza was inspired by a lawsuit blaming McDonald’s for making people fat.
Spurlock’s admiration for trial lawyers cuts both ways. Some of these sharks are beginning to pretend that Spurlock’s stunt has serious meaning. George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, an adviser in the McDonald’s lawsuit, is already promoting ”Super Size Me” as a harbinger of more fast-food litigation.
If anything, ”Super Size Me” is a lesson in why obesity lawsuits are so frivolous. Spurlock consciously chose to eat just one type of food day in and day out. He was no unwitting victim of convenient, inexpensive and tasty food.
Conspicuously absent from Spurlock’s blame-the-burger publicity drive is any mention of his physical activity. Nutritionists tell us that weight gain is just calories in vs. calories out. It doesn’t really matter if the calories come in the form of Big Macs or brussels sprouts. Just ask Don Gorske. He’s in the Guinness Book of Records for eating 19,000 Big Macs. Gorske is 6 feet tall, 180 pounds, and his cholesterol is a healthy 155.
”Super Size Me” goes so far as to associate Ronald McDonald with dealing drugs. While watching commercials that feature the iconic clown, the audience is treated to the song ”Pusher Man.” Banzhaf has also pushed the inane notion that McDonald’s fare is akin to illegal drugs such as heroin. Last summer he threatened to sue fast-food restaurants if they didn’t display warnings telling consumers their food was ”addictive.”
The lawyers and Spurlock are serving up a flawed premise: that we’re powerless to stop Big Food from turning us into a nation of fatties. Sadly, the next guy to exist on nothing but fast food for a month will probably try to turn his story into a courtroom drama. It’s a trial lawyer’s dream come true, and a case Banzhaf has been waiting years to file.
I bet he will.
— Richard Berman is executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers.